Midrash is a genre of Tanakh commentary produced by our sages in the Land of Israel in the centuries following the Hurban, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. It consists of comments on a broad range of halakhic, theological, narrative, homiletic, ethical, and other issues in the Tanakh. Halakhic Midrash forms its own category while the rest falls under the broad rubric of aggadic Midrash.
In halakhic Midrash, the sages focus on the Torah’s personal and communal mandates and prohibitions, including ritual, civil, and criminal law. In aggadic Midrash (hereafter, just “Midrash”), the sages explore the meaning of the Torah, implications of biblical narratives and historical events, conceptual matters such the nature of light, and ethical matters that are not directly addressed in the Torah.
The sages’ overarching aggadic concerns, however, are theological. They want to understand God’s character, motives, and goals. They explore every aspect of God’s relationship with Israel. They want to consider what God may have been doing behind the scenes of the biblical narrative. They are concerned about the Messianic Age and the World to Come, but mostly they want to know what God desires of Israel in thought, motives, and action in This World.
Like all Midrash, theological Midrash is first of all a response to a biblical text. An example is a midrash passage that comments on Psalm 77:6–10. The psalm is attributed to Asaph, who feels abandoned by God and refuses to be reassured when God tries to comfort him. The midrash treats Asaph’s words as if they were spoken by Israel, who are convinced that God has abandoned them in exile. The darshan (the originator or editor of the midrash) adds the comforting words of several prophets to assure Israel that God will never abandon them. The chapter concludes with the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Therefore, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are always with me” (Isa 49:16). Just as it is not possible for a man to forget his hands, so also “these [nursing mothers] may forget, but will not I forget you” (Isa 49:15).
As in all theological Midrash, God is revealed here in the context of his relationship with Israel. His efforts to comfort Israel eventually succeed because he is, by nature and choice, a loving and faithful God who will never abandon his people.
Over time, the sages taught their disciples hundreds or perhaps thousands of midrashim, which collectively articulate a rich theology that is meant to shape the way their disciples understand the Tanakh and relate to God, Israel, and the world around them.
Cass Fisher states that theological reflection in Midrash “provides the fundamental orientation to the divine that makes all of the other elements of the religious life possible.” Midrash, like the Tanakh on which it comments, accomplishes this with a minimum of system and structure. However, Midrash does more than this. As Howard Wettstein argues, “[t]he Rabbis see themselves as articulating a way of life. What I am calling their literary theology is [sic] provides a situating environment for the mitzvot. The aggadic material specifically provides the edification, comfort, and meaning that together with the practices constitute the religious life.”
Since the world of Midrash is “a situating environment” in which Jewish life is played out, it impacts every area of that life. In this article, I focus more narrowly on the role of Midrash in biblical interpretation. Although Midrash cannot serve as the only situating environment for biblical interpretation, it can make important contributions to a broader framework for biblical interpretation. To be clear, this is not a sola scriptura, but a prima scriptura approach to Bible. In this approach the Bible is the first and most important, but not the only, source of knowledge about itself or about the reality of which it speaks. For example, it allows Midrash to address gaps and spaces that exist in the text of the Bible in ways that are consistent with the Bible itself. This said, Midrash does not bear divine authority as the Bible does, but the human authority of devoted traditional scholarship.
I illustrate this approach with a study of the Bible’s descriptions of God dwelling with human beings in light of the rabbinic concept of the Shekhinah, the Presence of God.
One of my goals is to present Midrash with some nuance. For the sake of readers who are unfamiliar with Midrash (or with the particular midrashim I discuss), I present most midrashim in full instead of making my points with prooftexts. Thus, the “Shekhinah” portion of this paper is lengthier than the one dedicated to the Apostolic Writings, with which most readers are familiar, so that briefer quotations are sufficient.
The word “Shekhinah” does not appear in the Bible. It first comes into view in late Second Temple period Jewish writings such as the targums, the Aramaic paraphrastic translations of the Tanakh. These texts use the Aramaic Shekhinta, the equivalent of the Hebrew Shekhinah, as a euphemism for God, at least in part to avoid anthropomorphism. For example, in the book of Exodus God tells Moses, “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exod 25:8); Targum Pseudo-Jonathan has (in Jewish Palestinian Aramaic), “Let them make before me a sanctuary that my Shekhinah may dwell among them.”
“Shekhinah” is a noun derived from the verbal root shakhan, (“dwell”), which has the simple meaning of “dwell” (in the short- or long-term). While the Shekhinah is sometime understood as a “royal residence” or “royalty,” it is commonly translated “Presence (of God)” or “Divine Presence.”
Unlike the targumic authors, the sages did not go out of their way to avoid anthropomorphism or its subcategory, anthropopathism. In fact, Midrash is often more anthropopathic than the Tanakh is because the sages conceived of God primarily in relational and emotive terms rather than in covenantal or contractual terms. Therefore, it is difficult to believe that the sages used the Shekhinah as a euphemism to avoid anthropomorphism. In Midrash, the Shekhinah is not merely the presence of God, but a personification of God’s love for Israel and his dwelling among them. To the sages’ way of thinking, the God who loves Israel and is with them is in fact in their midst.
While most Shekhinah midrashim concern God dwelling among Israel as a people, a few focus on individuals who act in ways that are particularly pleasing to God and therefore draw him near.
“In Every Place”
Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael Bahodesh 11
In every place, [where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you] (Exod 20:24), that is, in the Temple. . . . Rabbi Eliezer b. Ya’akov says: [The Lord says:] If you come to my house I will come to your house, but if you do not come to my house I will not come to your house. To the place my heart loves, there my feet lead me.
From here [Exodus 20:24] they [derived and] said: Wherever ten persons assemble in a synagogue, the Shekhinah is with them, as it is said: God stands in the congregation of God (Ps. 82:1). And how do we know that He is also with three people holding court? It says: Among the judges he judges (ibid.). And how do we know that he is also with two? It is said: Then those who feared the Lord spoke one with another, etc. (Mal 3:16). And how do we know that he is even with one? It is said: In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.
R. Eliezer imagines the situation that existed when God dwelled in the Temple and the Torah required Jewish males to go up to Jerusalem three times each year to celebrate feasts (Deut 16:16). If Jews love God’s house, they will come up to the Temple on these occasions and God will respond by visiting them in their synagogues and where they gather in small numbers.
Most of our midrash is derived loosely from Exodus 20:24. This verse originally referred to temporary altars, but R. Eliezer connects it more broadly to all places where God’s name is mentioned; there the Shekhinah will come to them and bless them.
“Ten” is the minimum number of God Jews required to hold full liturgical services. The Shekhinah is with them. “Three” refers to the number who serve as judges in civil and criminal cases. The Shekhinah is with them. “Two” refers to a “hevruta” or “study pair.” The Shekhinah is with them. The Shekhinah will be even with “one” who keeps God’s name in mind. However, this is not a long-term or permanent dwelling with them, but is contingent on the continued righteous behavior of the individuals involved.
According to a later midrash, even when the Shekhinah enters the Tabernacle at peak brilliance, it is still present in the rest of the world.
The Sea and the Cave
Song of Songs Rabbah 3:20
The interior [of Solomon’s palanquin] was inlaid with love (Song of Songs 3:10)
Rabbi Yehoshua of Sikhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: With what may the Tent of Meeting be compared? To a seaside cave. The sea rushed forth and flooded the cave. The cave is filled but the sea loses nothing. So, the Tent of Meeting was filled with the radiance of the Shekhinah but the world lost nothing of the Shekhinah. When did the Shekhinah rest on the world? On the day when the tabernacle was set up, as it says, And it came to pass on the day that Moses completed [the Tabernacle], etc. (Numbers 7:1)
Although R. Yehoshua is concerned primarily with the radiance of the Shekhinah that filled the Tent of Meeting, it also rests on the world. This hints that God is concerned with the people of Israel in a way that does not negate his concern for “all who come into the world.”
Prior to the book of Exodus there are no biblical accounts of God dwelling with human beings. He visits them, talks with them, judges them, and so on, but does not explicitly dwell with them. This resembles the difference between a friend who visits and one who moves into your house.
God, who dwells above, does not dwell on earth until the day the Tabernacle is inaugurated. That moment is anticipated in the Song at the Sea, when Moses and Israel sing,
In your unfailing love you will lead
the people you have redeemed.
In your strength you will guide them
to your holy dwelling. . . .
You will bring them in and plant them
on the mountain of your inheritance—
the place, Lord, you made for your dwelling,
the sanctuary, Lord, your hands established. (Exod 15:13, 17)
These verses seem to reflect prior knowledge of the sanctuary, which had not yet been built or even publicly announced. Later in the book of Exodus, God instructed Moses, saying, “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it” (Exod 25:8–9). This is an important reminder to Moses that the tabernacle must be built exactly according to the heavenly pattern that God showed him on Mt. Sinai. God is about to free Israel from slavery in order to dwell in their midst in a perfect structure (Exod 29:44–46).
Elsewhere, we learn that God freed Israel from slavery because he loved their Fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and chose their descendants (Deut 4:37), and because he loved their descendants and was keeping the oaths he swore to their Fathers concerning their descendants’ fruitfulness, the gift of the Land, and the blessing that gentiles would receive in them (Deut 7:7–8).
The moment when God first dwelled in the Tabernacle is described in Exodus 40:34–35: after Moses erected the Tabernacle, “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”
The sages’ narrative of the Shekhinah begins much earlier than the biblical narrative that opens in Exodus. According to a midrash attributed to R. Abba bar Kahana, the Shekhinah was originally on the earth until Adam sinned, driving it upward to the first firmament. Subsequent individuals and generations also sinned, driving the Shekhinah upwards until it reached the seventh firmament. Corresponding to those who drove the Shekhinah upward, seven righteous men arose who brought it downward: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Levi, Kohat, Amram, and Moses, who brought the Shekhinah back down to the earth. As we learned in another midrash, the Shekhinah rested upon the earth when the Tabernacle was inaugurated, as it says, “and it came to pass on the day that Moses had made an end of setting up the Tabernacle, etc. (Num 7:1).
The phrase had made an end of setting up emphasizes the crucial fact that the entire process of collecting the materials, building the tabernacle, and preparing the priesthood was complete and ready for the Shekhinah to enter.
Thus, the biblical narrative of God’s dwelling begins when God is about to deliver Israel from slavery while sages’ narrative of the Shekhinah begins in the Garden of Eden. The two narratives come together at the inauguration of the Tabernacle.
Beloved Are Israel
Sifré Numbers 161
Published in the mid-third century C.E., Sifré Numbers is the sages’ earliest commentary on the book of Numbers. Section 161 (and Sifré Numbers as a whole) concludes with two midrashim that are composed primarily of Tanakh quotations.
Even When They Are Impure
In the midst of which I dwell (Num 35:34). Beloved are Israel, for even when they are impure the Shekhinah is among them, which dwells with them in the midst of their impurities (Lev 16:16), as it is said: for I dwell in their midst (Num 35:34) and they shall not defile their camp, [in whose midst I dwell] (Ibid. 5:3) and You shall not defile the Land [where you live and where I dwell.] (Ibid. 35:34).
The darshan has spliced Numbers 35:34 together with Leviticus 16:16 in order to show that the Shekhinah dwells with Israel in the midst of their impurities. However, Leviticus 16:16 says no such thing. It reads the Tent of Meeting [not the Shekhinah or God’s Presence] which dwells with them in the midst of their impurities. In the midrash, the darshan has effectively substituted “the Shekhinah” for the Tent of Meeting in the book of Numbers in order to express his view of the matter.
Michael Marmur quotes an anonymous interviewee who observed, “The whole point of using quotations is surely that the listener will understand the reference; it’s a way of using shorthand.” Marmur adds, “To be a part of the community means, first of all, to be capable of identifying and understanding the material being quoted.” The sages, students, and early readers of this midrash were part of such a community, which was familiar with the Tanakh and with the sages’ quotation practices. They assumed that the change of the subject from the Tent of Meeting to the Shekhinah was not deceptive, but midrashic short hand for this line of thought: The Shekhinah is God’s Presence in the Tent of Meeting. The Tent of Meeting dwells with Israel; therefore, the Shekhinah dwells with Israel.
A fuller unpacking of the midrash refers to Numbers 35:30–34, Leviticus 16:16, and Numbers 5:1–4. Numbers 35:30–34 explains that blood which is shed by murder or manslaughter defiles the sinner and makes impure the Land upon which the Tent of Meeting rests. Numbers 5:1–4 adds the impurity of those who are afflicted with skin disease, bodily discharge, or contact with a corpse. Those who are impure in these ways must be brought outside the camp of Israel rather than defile the camp itself, where God dwells.
All this helps Midrash hearers and readers to understand the point of this midrash: We know that Israel is beloved because the Shekhinah overcomes its aversion to impurity in order to remain among them.
A later midrash includes the radical statement that the Shekhinah dwells even among those in Israel who rebel against God.
Among the rebellious too, that the Lord God might dwell there (Ps 68:18). Even though they are rebellious, God places his Shekhinah among them. By what merit? By the merit of saying: All that the LORD has spoken will we do and understand (Exod 19:8). (Song of Songs Rabbah 6.16)
The issue of “merit” requires an explanation. When God gave Israel the Torah, they responded “All that the Lord has spoken will we [first] do and [then] understand.” This is Israel’s “confession of the mouth” that they trust God even before they understand what he commands them to do. The sages understand that Israel’s act of putting obedience before understanding is a seminal moment in their relationship with God. In light of the communal and trans-generational identity of Israel, these words were effectively uttered by all Israel in every generation, including the generation that David is singing about in Psalm 68. Thus, the “merit” was communal and every Jew thereafter partakes of it, including the rebellious.
This brings to mind the issue of what happened to the Shekhinah when the Temples were destroyed. Exodus Rabbah, a midrash anthology that was published in the tenth century CE, aggregates numerous opinions. Some sages say that the Shekhinah departed to heaven, but most follow R. Eleazar’s line of thought, who said:
The Shekhinah did not depart from the Temple, for it is said: And my eyes and my heart shall be there perpetually (2 Chron 5:16). Thus, it also says: With my voice I call to the Lord, and he answers me out of his holy mountain, Selah (Ps 3:5), for although the Temple was laid waste, its remains retained the Temple’s holiness. (Exodus Rabbah 2.2)
“Wherever They Are Exiled”
Sifré Numbers 161, Midrash 2
The second midrash from Sifré Numbers 161 takes us into different geographic and theological territory, for in it the Shekhinah is not confined to the Land of Israel, but accompanies Israel wherever they go in exile.
R. Nathan says: Beloved are Israel, for wherever they are exiled the Shekhinah is with them.
They were exiled to Egypt and the Shekhinah was with them, as it is said: Did I not clearly reveal myself to the house of your father when they were in Egypt [enslaved] to the house of Pharaoh? (1 Sam 2:27). They were exiled to Babylon and the Shekhinah was with them, as it is said: For your sake I was sent to Babylon (Isa 43:14). They were sent to Elam and the Shekhinah was with them, as it is said: I placed my throne in Elam, and banished from there king and officers (Jer 49:38). They were exiled to Edom and the Shekhinah was with them, as it is said: Who is this, who comes from Edom, in crimson garments from Bozrah? [. . . It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save] (Isa 63:1).
And when they return, the Shekhinah will be with them, as it is said: Then the Lord your God will return [with your captivity] (Deut 30:3). It is not said “will return your captivity,” but will return with [your captivity]! And it says: With me from the Lebanon, my bride; with me from the Lebanon you come. . . . (Song of Songs 4:8)
This midrash is particularly important because of the sages’ claim that the Shekhinah is with Israel even in exile, where God drove them because of their idolatry. Although the proof text for Babylon (Isa 43:15) and the first proof text for the return (Deut 30:3) are weak, the others show that God was with Israel in several places beyond the borders of Israel and will be with them when they return to the Land. The sages’ statement that the Shekhinah was with Israel in these places is not a mere substitution of the word “Shekhinah” for the word “God,” but an implicit claim that God was there as the One who loves them and dwells among them. This is the meaning of the word “Shekhinah.” The underlying thought of this midrash is premise that when God is near, he is near in every way. God is angry or silent at times, but otherwise when he is with Israel, he is not aloof, nor does he flit in and out of contact with the people, but dwells among them. When he is near, he does not tease them, but relates to them.
The upshot of the midrash to this point is that we know Israel is beloved because the Shekhinah extends itself, so to speak, beyond the Temple confines to every place on earth where Jews dwell in exile, despite their idolatry and the impurity of the people among whom they dwell in exile.
The midrash concludes with a parable.
Rabbi [Yehudah the Prince] says; To what may this matter be compared? To a king who said to his servant: If you seek me, behold I will be with my son. Likewise, whenever you seek me, I will be with Israel, my son. For I, the Lord, dwell in the midst of the people of Israel (Num 35:34).
According to Rabbi, “this matter” of the Shekhinah being with Israel wherever they go in exile may be compared with a doting father who refuses to be separated from his son. However, the final quotation, which contextually concerns God dwelling in the midst of Israel in the Tabernacle in the Land, does not seem to line up with “this matter,” which concerns exile.
Rabbi’s parable may be unpacked like this: “Whenever you seek me, I will be with Israel, my son, no matter where he is in the Land or in exile. For I, who dwell in the midst of Israel despite their impurities also dwell among them in exile despite their idolatry. I who dwell in the midst of Israel despite the impurity of the Land also dwell among them despite the impurity of the nations where I have driven them.
This midrash cites Israel’s places of exile without explicit reference to the Temple, leading readers to assume that the Temple has been destroyed. A similar midrash covers the time from the descent of Jacob and his family (nascent Israel) into Egypt up to the time when the Shekhinah enters the Temple.
“I Am My Beloved’s”
Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael Shirata 3
I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; he grazes among the lillies (Song 6:3) And the sages say I will accompany him until I come with him to the Temple. This is like a king whose son who went away to a far-off country. He went after him and stood by him. Then the son went to another country, and the king again followed him and stood by him.
So also, when Israel went down to Egypt the Shekhinah went down with them, as it is said: I will go down with you to Egypt (Gen 46:4). When they came up from Egypt, the Shekhinah came up with them, as it is said: And I will also surely bring you up again (Ibid.). When they went into the sea, the Shekhinah was with them, as it is said: Then the angel of God [who was going before the host of Israel (Exod 14:19). When they went out to the wilderness, the Shekhinah was with them as it is said: And the Lord went before them by day (Exod 13:21) until they brought him, with them to his Temple.
The sages use of quotations in these midrashim are examples of the ancient tradition of using Tanakh quotations to flesh out narratives and lend them a measure of scriptural authority. In each case, the first and last quotations mark the beginning and the goal of the narrative—in the first instance, from the presence of the Shekhinah with Israel in Egypt to their ultimate return from exile; in the second instance the narrative begins with Shekhinah’s presence with Israel from their beginnings in the Land to the inauguration of the Tabernacle.
Like all midrashim of this type, these two are meant to provide Israel with conceptual paradigms that enable them to understand their relationship with God in the Tanakh and in life. Since both midrashim originated in times when a large percentage of Jews were still in exile, they served to help Jews to understand the broader implications of their exilic condition.
“Under the Wings of the Shekhinah”
Song of Songs Rabbah 1.22
Although the Jewish way of life in the sages’ day was not particularly “missionary” in its ethos, gentiles could become part of the people of Israel by conversion. This mid-sixth century CE midrash is the fullest midrashic description of the process of conversion.
And the soul(s) which they made in Haran (Gen 12:5). Now if all mankind assembled to create one gnat they would not be able to do it, but these are the converts whom Abraham and Sarah converted. Therefore, it is said, And the soul(s) which they made in Haran.
Rabbi Hunia said, Abraham used to convert the men and Sarah the women. Then why does Scripture state, which they made in Haran [rather than “which they converted”]? It teaches that Abraham our father used to gather them into his house and feed them food and drink and make them beloved and being them near and convert them and gather them under the wings of the Shekhinah.
You learn [from this that] everyone who brings a person under the wings of the Shekhinah, it is accounted to him as if he had created, grown, and articulated him [in the womb].
The phrase soul(s) that they made in Haran is generally translated less literally as servants they acquired in Haran. However, the sages were concerned with the literal sense: What does it mean to make a soul?
R. Hunia explains that making a soul is what Abraham and Sarah, and those who follow in their footsteps, did to draw gentiles “under the wings of the Shekhinah.” It involves acts of hospitality, making gentiles know that they are beloved of God, then bringing them near by means of persuasion, and converting them to the God of Israel and the Jewish way of life, including male circumcision. All who do these things are considered as if they had fully created a human being.
Just as the presence of the Shekhinah assures Israel that they are beloved, when gentiles are gathered under the wings of the Shekhinah, they are assured that they, too, are now among the beloved people.
The Apostolic Writings
When we turn to the Apostolic Writings, we are going back about two hundred years from the time when the earliest Midrash collections were published. Shaul and Barnabas were confronted by a teaching espoused by “men from Judea” who insisted, “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1–2). In Jerusalem, the apostles and elders who gathered to respond to this challenge were further confronted by Pharisaic members of their community who argued, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the Torah of Moses” (Acts 15:5). Both of these challenges reflected the consensus Jewish view of conversion.
Based largely on the testimony of apostles who experienced God’s marvelous work among gentiles entirely apart from these requirements, James, speaking to the assembled group, rejected these challenges (Acts 15:13–20). In effect, this decision enabled gentiles to come under the wings of the Shekhinah without conversion. Gentiles who hope in Messiah Yeshua, the Son of the God of Israel, are in the same status as Jews who hope in him, except that Jews would continue to observe the Torah while gentiles were not asked to do so.
Although Shaul of Tarsus was involved in these disputes, he did not base his view of matters solely on his experience, but on a revelation that he, along with other apostles and the prophets, received of the previously unknown “mystery of Messiah” concerning the status of gentiles who hope in Messiah Yeshua (Eph 3:4–5). Although they did not become Jews, these gentiles became “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Messiah Yeshua through the gospel.”
What Shaul describes as the same body is described elsewhere by Shaul, Peter, and the author of Hebrews as a house, household, the commonwealth of Israel, temple, dwelling place, and spiritual house. They are metaphors for the worldwide totality of Jews and gentiles who hope in Messiah Yeshua and among whom the God of Israel dwells.
Shaul details the mystery of Messiah in the previous chapter of Ephesians (verses 11–22), which he concludes with a beautiful statement about Messiah Yeshua, “in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:21–22). Thus, gentiles share in the ultimate human privilege in This World—to become an integral part of the dwelling place of God.
The mystery of Messiah reveals God’s deepest motivations and purposes. Israel is still God’s first-born, but, as Yeshua said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). A sheepfold is a pen or shelter for sheep; the one flock is the aggregate of sheep from two folds—on that shelters Jews and the other gentiles. The two sheepfolds are essential for the care and maintenance of those who hope in Messiah without obliterating the uniqueness of Jews or gentiles. To be specific, Israel remains the people among whom the Shekhinah dwells in the Land and wherever they are in exile, while gentiles are not bound by such geographical distinctions.
The mystery of Messiah is based on God’s unchanging motivation to love and dwell among human beings, yet is obviously a unique expression of these unchanging motivations. In light of this mystery, it is now impossible that the Shekhinah is only a personification of God’s love for, and dwelling among Israel, but God’s love for Israel and the world and his dwelling among Israel and the body of Jews and gentiles who hope in Messiah.
While I am not happy about later developments that worked to the detriment of the Jewish people and others, I am compelled to observe that just as the Shekhinah dwelled in the midst of Israel despite their impurity and even their rebellion, the Shekhinah dwells in the Body of Messiah even in its impurity and rebellion.
Elsewhere, Shaul describes the theological relationship between Israel and the Body of Messiah as dwelling places of God.
“I Will Make My Dwelling Among Them”
2 Corinthians 6:16
The apostolic authors frequently quote the Tanakh to justify or explain their views. In 2 Corinthians 6:16 Shaul describes the Body of Messiah as the temple in which God dwells. Shaul uses a fusion of two verses of the Torah to make his point.
What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the Temple of the living God; as God said,
I will make my dwelling among them
and walk about among them
and will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
The Torah verses cited here are Exodus 29:45 (“I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God”) and Leviticus 26:11–12 (“I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people”).
In their plain sense, these verses refer to the people of Israel. Shaul fuses them to serve as an analogy to explain that God dwells in the Body of Messiah just as he dwells in the people of Israel. Shaul inserts and walk about among them from Leviticus 26:11–12, possibly to emphasize God’s immanence among Israel and the Body of Messiah.
Apostolic Writings continue the Tanakh’s narrative, revealing the wider scope of God’s desire to dwell among human beings, a desire that extends beyond Israel to the nations. Thus, in terms borrowed from Sifré Numbers 161, “Beloved are Israel and the Body of Messiah, for the Shekhinah is with them.” The beauty of Shaul’s analogy is that it affirms both Israel and the Body of Messiah as God’s dwelling places and highlights the consistency of God’s motivations in This World.
Building God’s Dwelling Place
The Body of Messiah is a dwelling place of God that is still under construction, being built by a partnership of God and the members of the house. Shaul sums up this partnership in Ephesians 4:15–16, where he writes that Messiah is both the goal and the source of growth, while members of the Body draw on his resource to do the work of building.
Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Messiah, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Shaul leaves no doubt that God’s dwelling place must be built with loving speech and actions. He fleshes this out 1 Corinthians 14, where he speaks of building up oneself, other individuals, and the Body of Messiah a total of eight times (the translations “edify” and “edification” obscure this fact). One instance refers to building up oneself (14:2), three to building up individuals (14:3, 4, and 17), three to building up the Body of Messiah (14:4, 5, 12), and one most likely refers to building up both individuals and the Body of Messiah (14:26).
Shaul’s rule in all matters is Let all things be done for building up (14:26). The Body of Messiah, God’s dwelling place, is built when members of the Body of Messiah speak and act lovingly in order to build up others and the building as a whole.
God Dwells in Messiah Yeshua
God’s love for human beings and his dwelling among them as individuals is expressed most fully in Messiah Yeshua, “for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19), and “in him all the fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). Yeshua “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7). Yeshua, who emptied himself, became the bodily dwelling place of God.
The Word emptied himself, became flesh, and dwelled [lit., tented or tabernacled as in Rev 21:3] among Israel (John 1:14). In resurrection, he became the foundation and cornerstone of the building in whom “the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord In him you aso [gentiles as well as Jews] are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:21).
Shaul, in his letter to the Romans, provides a closer look at Messiah’s ongoing role as a servant.
Messiah has become a servant to the Jews [lit., the Circumcision] on behalf of the truth of God, in order to confirm the promises to the Fathers and for the Gentiles to glorify God for his mercy. (Rom 15:8–9)
Shaul uses precise language here, writing that Messiah has become— not simply became or was—a servant to the Jews. The words has become reflect the Greek perfect tense, meaning became and still is. Presumably, Yeshua, when he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, became a servant to humanity generally and to Jews uniquely. Both aspects of Yeshua’s servanthood are inherent in the Incarnation.
Messiah became and in Shaul’s day still was a servant to the Jews, and presumably still is, until the oaths (which Shaul calls promises) that God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are confirmed. These oaths concerned Israel’s fruitfulness, the gift of the Land, and the blessing gentiles would receive in them. Yet, since no further confirmation was needed once God made these oaths, Messiah’s confirmation must be of a different kind. I suggest that it is the same mode of confirmation that is described in Jeremiah 11:3–5 in which Israel must obey the commandments in order for God to “establish” (KJV) (or, “confirm”) the oaths he made to the Fathers—that is, to bring them to pass on the ground. This, in turn, will cause gentiles who hope in Messiah Yeshua to glorify God for his mercy toward Israel and themselves.
In this way Messiah builds up both Israel and the Body of Messiah as dwelling places of God.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell [lit., tent or tabernacle, as in John 1:14] with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God [Exod 29:45]. (Rev 21:1–3)
This first two verses of this vision present a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem that differ dramatically from the ones we know in This World. For the new things are eternal, but the ones we know in this world are ephemeral and will no longer exist when the new Jerusalem descends to the new earth.
Verse 3, however, reflects an old reality: God’s love for human beings and his perpetual desire to dwell among them. The loud voice, like Shaul in 2 Corinthians 6:6, paraphrases Exodus 29:45, “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God.” This verse refers to the people of Israel among whom God dwelled in the tabernacle. Shaul uses the people of Israel as an unmarked analogy to explain that God dwells in the Body of Messiah just as he dwells in the people of Israel. Similarly, the loud voice uses these words analogically to explain that God dwells in the new Jerusalem, which is already called the dwelling place of God, just as he dwelled in Israel and in the Body of Messiah on the first earth.
In this way, Revelation 21 implicitly affirms that Israel and the Body of Messiah, which are God’s dwelling places in This World, are precursors of the new Jerusalem. God’s love for human beings and his perpetual desire to dwell among them is partially satisfied in This World and will be fully satisfied in the new Jerusalem. Likewise, human love for God and desire for his nearness will at last be fully satisfied in the new Jerusalem, where there the only temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb (Rev 21:22).
To put it another way, each of God’s dwelling places is unique and all of them reflect God’s unchanging motivations and character in This World and in the World to Come.
In this article, I chose a subject that is not found in the Bible—the rabbinic concept of the Shekhinah—as an example of a prima scriptura approach to biblical interpretation in which Midrash plays a key role.
The concept of the Shekhinah organized our study around the Shekhinah as a personification of God’s love for Israel and dwelling among them. This has the effect of personalizing and normalizing the immanence of God throughout the Bible. Under the influence of the Apostolic Writings, it became possible to say that the Shekhinah is the personification of God’s love for Israel and the world and his dwelling among Israel and the body of Jews and gentiles who hope in Messiah. It is reasonable to think that readers will reflect on their own identity in light of these thoughts.
Arguably the most controversial contribution of Midrash in this article is the sages’ claim that biblical statements that God is with Israel mean that God, or the Shekhinah, is among or in the midst of them. This is most likely an effect of the sages’ view of the immanence of God and his desire to be among them.
The sages’ emphasis on Israel’s communal relationship with God in the Tanakh virtually required a similar approach in the Apostolic Writings, resulting in a communally-oriented biblical narrative. The sages’ use of the biblical fact that God dwells among Israel in the Tabernacle despite their impurities and rebellion lent credence to a similar reading of the Apostolic Writings, in which God continues to dwell in the Body of Messiah and its individual congregations despite similar failings. This emphasis on communal relationship with God in Midrash and the Bible balances the more common individualistic approach of today and can promote deeper relationships within communities.
Midrash translations are the author’s. Biblical citations are translated with reference to at least twenty other translations, relying most heavily on the ESV.
Rabbi Carl Kinbar, founder and director of the New School for Jewish Studies (http://nsfjs.org/), studied Midrash with Rabbi Bernard Grossfeld z”l. He earned a DLitt et Phil (Doctor of Literature and Philosophy) at the University of South Africa, and an M.S. in Jewish Studies at Spertus College. Rav Kinbar received Smicha from the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC).
1 For a brief account of the early rabbinic movement, see Carl Kinbar, “The Sages of Galilee and the Formation of Community,” Kesher, Vol. 35 (Summer/Fall, 2019), 85–91.
2 Midrash (upper-case “M”) is the genre. A midrash (lower-case “m”) is an individual comment (plural, midrashim).
3 Pesikta deRav Kahana, Ch. 17. In Midrash, the attributions of comments to particular sages are not always reliable, though they are likely to indicate the generation in which the comment was made. Where there is no attribution, I use phrases such as “the midrash comments.”
4 Cass Fisher, “Beyond the Homiletical: Rabbinic Theology as Discursive and Reflective Practice,” The Journal of Religion, Vol. 90, No. 2 (April 2010), 199–236.
5 Howard Wettstein, The Significance of Religious Experience, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 115.
6 For reviews of existing approaches to the use of rabbinic writings to better understand the Apostolic Writings, see William Horbury, “The New Testament and Rabbinic Study—An Historical Sketch,” Reimund Bieringer et al., eds., The New Testament and Rabbinic Literature (Leiden, Brill, 2010), 1–42; and Anthony J. Saldarini, “Comparing the Traditions: New Testament and Rabbinic Literature,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 7 (1997), 195–204.
7 Steven D. Fraade, “The Innovation of Nominalized Verbs in Mishnaic Hebrew as Marking an Innovation of Concept,” Elitzur A. Bar-Asher Siegal and Aaron J. Koller, eds., Studies in Mishnaic Hebrew and Related Fields: Proceedings of the Yale Symposium on Mishnaic Hebrew, May 2014, (New Haven-Jerusalem: The Hebrew Language Academy Press, 2019), 129–148. For a brief review of the Shekhinah in rabbinic writings see Raphael Patai, “The Shekhina,” The Journal of Religion, Vol. 44, No. 4, (Oct., 1964), 275–288.
8 Michel Sokolov, A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period (Ramat-Gan: Bar Ilan and Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2002), 550.
9 For convenience’ sake, I use the terms “Jewish” and “Jew,” often anachronistically, for every time period, even where “Israelite” is technically correct.
10 While most of the midrashim I quote in this article were published in the early to mid-third century CE, Song of Songs Rabbah was probably published about mid-sixth century CE. It adds to, but does not alter, the earlier rabbinic conception of the Shekhinah.
11 Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael, Parashah Shirata 3
12 These oaths are found in the Genesis accounts of Abraham (Gen 12:1–3 and 22:5–18), Isaac (Gen 26:4–5), and Jacob (Gen 28:13–16). These oaths should be distinguished from oaths that God made to the Fathers individually about other matters.
13 Song of Songs Rabbah 5.1.
14 Sifré Numbers 161 is sometimes labelled 160.
15 Michael Marmur, “Why Jews Quote,” Oral Tradition, 29/1 (2014): 27.
16 Marmur, “Why Jews Quote,” 28.
17 The sages follow a common practice of citing passages by quoting a brief portion of them. This practice, which was followed earlier by the apostolic authors, was a necessary shorthand that was used before standard chapters and verses were established in the Medieval Period.
18 I do not know why R. Nathan did not quote Ezekiel 11:16, which shows that God was with them throughout the exile: “Therefore declare that this is what the Lord God says: ‘Although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries to which they have gone.’”
19 The parallel passage in the Mekhilta deRabbi Shimon bar Yochai has Deut 1:31, which is better here than Exod 13:21. “They came to the wilderness [and] the Shekhinah was with them, [as it is said], and in the wilderness where you saw how the Lord your God carried you” [Deut 1:31].
20 For more on apostolic interpretation of the Tanakh, see Richard N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, and a review of Longenecker by Dionne Lindo-Witter, “Richard N. Longenecker’s ‘Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period,’ A Review,” Caribbean Journal of Evangelical Theology (2017), 99–106.
21 The term “plain sense” refers to the evident meaning of a text. Thus, symbols, analogies, and metaphors such as The Lord is my rock (Ps 18:1) are not to be taken literally.
22 I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it (1 Cor 3:10); In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph 2:22); and you yourselves as living stones are being built as a spiritual house (1 Pet 2:5).
23 “The perfect tense expresses perfective action. Perfective action involves a present state which has resulted from a past action.” James A. Brooks and Carlton L. Winbery, Syntax of New Testament Greek, (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988), 104–105.
24 Shaul adds words from Leviticus 26:11–12 which are not necessary in this discussion.
25 Two of the unique features of the new Jerusalem are the gates on which are written the names of twelve tribes of Israel are written and wall foundations on which the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb are written (Rev 21:12, 14). These reference Israel and the Body of Messiah on the first earth and also, in my view, their continued communal existence in the new Jerusalem.